Last month, my 15-year-old son created a Facebook account. He friended me right away, which struck me as a kind gesture (what dad wouldn’t want to be his kid’s No. 1 friend?), but he had nothing nice to say about my homepage. “Seriously? A video of the dog playing with the sprinkler? A photo of me with braces and a fake mustache? No memes at all? You don’t really know how to internet, do you?”  

“But you’re not my target audience,” I protested. “Dog videos, mustache photos . . . this is how my middle-aged peeps enjoy the web.” 

“Nobody says ‘peeps’ anymore.” 

“Whatever,” I shrugged. “According to your 23-year-old cousin, nobody under 40 uses Facebook anymore. So we’re even.” 

At this point, my other son — two years older than his brother — took off his headphones and dropped in on the conversation. “What, 10th graders are going on Facebook? Things have changed so much since I was that age.” 

No doubt they have. However, when it comes to the ways in which people use technology, it can be very hard to put one’s finger on what it means, precisely, to say that things have changed. Clearly, our technologies themselves keep changing — from the typewriter I brought to college to the Macbook I own today and the virtual reality headset I refuse to buy for my children. Our ability to access and share information has changed dramatically. And fashions certainly change. (Apparently, teenagers now like to share memes, while their wincingly embarrassing parents still think it’s cool to post dog videos and mustache selfies.) But are so-called digital natives really so different from previous generations? Have we seen a profound shift in the ways kids think, learn, communicate, and socialize? 

In K-12 education, discussions about technology tend to veer toward hyperbole. As the historian Larry Cuban (1986, 2003) has pointed out many times, new technologies — from the chalkboard to the film strip to the iPad — have always been hailed as game changers for the nation’s schools. But in truth, no device ever “transforms” teaching and learning. Nor does the available evidence suggest that growing up in a digital age has changed the nature of childhood to such an extent that kids require entirely new and different forms of instruction.  

That’s not to say that today’s children are exactly the same as their predecessors. They live in a world that has indeed changed in significant ways, with important implications for how and what we teach them. But the differences between the current generation and previous ones are subtle, and to understand how and why they matter, we need to take a close look at how children actually use their computers, smartphones, and other devices. As Michael Robb, Tolga Kargin, and others describe in this issue, online life brings with it some serious problems, such as an epidemic of multitasking and distraction, threats to privacy, runaway consumerism, and the rapid spread of propaganda. By and large, though, the research suggests that it’s not accurate to say that technology has transformed the experience of childhood. Rather, when it comes to the cognitive, social, and emotional development of young children, tweens, and teens, things seem to be changing in modest and incremental ways.  

Further, to the extent that digital natives differ from the generations that preceded them, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve carved out a new path for themselves. As James Gee describes, when young people turn to the internet to connect with, learn from, and teach others who share their interests and passions, they are recreating something very much like the Catholic community of Gee’s childhood, in which education took place not just in the school and the classroom but across a wide range of formal and informal settings, with many people sharing in the work of instruction. To teach today’s students effectively, perhaps we need to understand that, in some ways, online life entails a return to older educational traditions. The more things change, the more important it is to recognize that some things never change at all. — RH 


Cuban, L. (1986). Teachers and machines: The classroom use of technology since 1920. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.  

Cuban, L. (2003). Oversold and underused: Computers in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Originally published in March 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (6), 4. © 2018 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.